Are open plan offices an ideal forum for collaboration or an unwanted source of noise and disruption?

We know that open plan settings are popular with employers thanks to their space saving and perceived teamwork benefits. However there are a number of studies showing that they may be less than loved among employees.

If you’re in the office furniture and business products sector, then it could be a great move to encourage employers to make the open plan office a space that works for everyone, if you look at this research.

A study of 42,000 office workers by the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture found that workers in private offices were more satisfied than those in open plan offices, suggesting that noise levels and distractions may be a significant problem for open plan office workers.

Another study of 1,852 people showed a significantly increased risk of short term sickness absence among employees in open plan offices compared to those in flexible office environments and private offices.

A conclusion is that people are generally happier and healthier when they can exert more personal control over their workspace and that increased absences may result from staff being in closer contact and spreading cold viruses to each other.

As the open plan setting is prized by many employers because it can house greater numbers than private offices and many believe that the open plan office increases innovation because people can more readily collaborate and share ideas, it’s clear that a middle ground has to be found.

Here are 8 ideas for reducing the negatives and maximising the positives of open plan working:

Mix it up

The best open plan offices offer a variety of spaces including breakout areas and rooms where individuals can work in quiet when they need to, hold meetings and make confidential phone calls. Look at acoustically sealed rooms where people can focus on confidential work or work without distraction when they need to.

Go away to collaborate

Collaboration spaces where people can meet without disrupting other colleagues are important. These should ideally include a table, a screen on the wall, a whiteboard and comfortable seating.

Let there be light

Uplighters with foot controlled dimmers and touch LED desk lamps will enable people to control their own lighting and help them to feel a little more in control of their environment.

Put a lid on the noise

Sound masking systems ensure greater acoustic comfort and help people to concentrate better. These systems offer a masking volume that can be adjusted to the characteristics and noise conditions of each work area, including architectural features and noise levels that change throughout the day.

Noise cancelling headphones are another consideration. These can help people to stay at their desk and focus on important work without distraction. They also discourage interruption from colleagues when deadlines are pending.

Keep it clean

Make a selection of cleaning products available is a good idea. Anti-microbial and anti-bacterial wipes should be used to give telephones, keyboards and shared surfaces a clean and help stop the spread of germs. If it’s cold season, think about leaving boxes of tissues on desks to encourage people to use and bin them, rather than sneeze or cough into their hands.

Move the bins

Placing waste paper bins away from people’s desks give people a reason to leave their desks and move around, rather than staying seated all day. This simple move can also encourage people to go to a designated break area to have lunch rather than eating ‘Al Desko’.

Lock it up

Providing lockers for storing confidential and less frequently accessed items will improve security and help to reduce paper clutter around the office.

Set the rules

Establish ground rules for the use of open and collaborative work spaces, whether that’s a notice asking not be interrupted or booking out time in shared or private rooms.

In summary, there are three Cs for a successful open plan office – comfort, choice and control. Give as much of these as you realistically can to the people working in these spaces and you’ll go a long way in ensuring they’re the happy and healthy ones the next time a survey is run.

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